The perception that Southeast Asian nations tend to yield to Chinese coercion at sea overlooks the brave efforts of regional navies and coast guards to assert their national sovereignty. Those efforts can and should be bolstered and amplified.
The stereotypical image of Southeast Asian nation responses to China’s maritime coercion in the South China Sea is one of meekness or, at worst, submission. While sometimes true, this view is based on the fact that Southeast Asian countries are smaller and weaker than China and that their economic dependence must limit their responses to Beijing’s aggression. Compounding this perception, several regional capitals frequently send mixed signals, creating the impression of policy confusion or paralysis. The reality, however, is nuanced. These states exercise agency and assert their interests when possible, including by directly pushing back against China’s coercive behavior. Whether their responses are optimal is debatable, but the image of weak nations not willing to push back is often incorrect or at least incomplete. As the United States seeks to coalesce a regional response to thwart China’s gray zone efforts to dominate the South China Sea, it should tap into and bolster this “David vs. Goliath” spirit and courage.
Gray Zone Situations
RAND offers a useful definition of the “gray zone,” referring to “an operational space between peace and war, involving coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response, often by blurring the line between military and nonmilitary actions and the attribution for events.”1 In this respect, gray zone situations typically include: 1) faits accompli; 2) deterrent ambiguities; and 3) proxy warfare.2 Southeast Asian nations that border the South China Sea have encountered all three types dealt by China.
The first, fait accompli, is best exemplified by China’s massive island-building and fortification work in the South China Sea. The reason it is a fait accompli is because it entails a permanent change to the status quo. Rivals are unable to reverse the situation unless they destroy or occupy these artificial outposts, which would mean entering a full-blown armed conflict with Beijing. The second, deterrent ambiguities, is a series of below-the-threshold actions, some of which may appear innocuous or trivial, that, over time, erode the victim’s power or position. Beijing has passed new domestic maritime laws that seek to strengthen its administration in the South China Sea, even though they violate international law. The Coast Guard Law promulgated in January 2021 is a notable example.3 Finally, China’s proxy warfare in the South China Sea is best exemplified by the activities of its People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), which has been known to “swarm, ram, and sink foreign vessels in disputed waters and high seas.”4
Even though China possesses the advantage in terms of physical force, Southeast Asian codisputants are not meekly conceding ground. While they are hamstrung by capacity shortfalls, several claimants actively are pushing back against Chinese maritime coercion. Vietnam has led the pack in standing up to Beijing’s actions, with the months-long standoff between Vietnamese and Chinese maritime forces over the Chinese oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 off the Paracel Islands in 2014 being a noteworthy instance.5 But Vietnam is not the only South China Sea claimant that has had the gumption and endurance to engage with China.
Save for Brunei, which has yet to be embroiled in any significant maritime standoff with China, the other Southeast Asian parties have put up their fair share of resistance against Beijing’s maritime coercion. For instance, during the February 2020 standoff over the drillship West Capella working in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the Malaysians deployed at least one ship—usually a naval vessel—to counter the larger China Coast Guard (CCG) presence.6 Similarly, in June 2021, after a CCG vessel appeared in Indonesia’s EEZ to monitor the energy exploration activities of the semisubmersible rig Noble Clyde Boudreaux, the Indonesians immediately dispatched naval and coast guard assets to the area.7 Both Malaysia and Indonesia have continued to maintain counterpresence operations against China’s coercive actions in the South China Sea.
The Philippines is perhaps the most interesting case. In the early days of the administration of then-President Rodrigo Duterte, Philippine policy toward the South China Sea disputes and China in general was characterized as appeasement. Duterte manifested this approach by traveling to Beijing not long after winning the election, announcing his government would “set aside” the 2016 arbitral award on the South China Sea, axing or downscaling some bilateral military exercises with the United States, engaging in joint energy exploration talks with China, and downplaying instances of belligerent Chinese behavior toward Filipino fishermen.
It was not until after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese boat swarm incident at Whitsun Reef that there was a significant change in the
Duterte administration’s policy. In early 2021, following reports of more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels moored at Whitsun Reef and the emergence of numerous Chinese vessels, including naval and coast guard, in the Philippine EEZ, Manila began responding with uncharacteristic vigor. Notwithstanding capacity limitations, the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources mobilized assets and manpower to monitor the situation.8 In some instances, the Philippine maritime forces boldly challenged their Chinese counterparts, despite concerns that the latter could use China’s Coast Guard Law for retaliation. For example, in April 2021, the Philippine Coast Guard challenged a group of Chinese fishing vessels, some of which were believed to be PAFMM, off Sabina Shoal and expelled them without further incident.9 In July of the same year, the Philippine Coast Guard vessel Cabra confronted and challenged the PLA Navy (PLAN) fleet tug Nantuo 189 in waters near Marie Louise Bank (well within the Philippine EEZ). The Nantuo 189 departed the area without further incident.10 The situation has remained dynamic in Philippine waters under the current Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration, with the Philippine Coast Guard at the forefront of faceoffs with the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia—especially following a February 2023 laser-pointing incident.
Maritime Domain Awareness
One way to improve Southeast Asian parties’ ability to push back against China’s maritime coercion would be to enhance maritime domain awareness (MDA). For many Southeast Asian countries, constrained by limited assets and manpower, better MDA would enable more effective and efficient ways to deploy forces where they would matter most. Over the past decade, Southeast Asia has been a primary beneficiary of U.S.-sponsored maritime security capacity-building assistance, which in large part focuses on MDA. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam have received ScanEagle unmanned aerial systems that have been helpful in plugging MDA gaps and facilitating the optimal deployment of limited maritime capacities for sovereignty assertion in the vast South China Sea.
Given that China has committed its coast guard as the spearhead on the South China Sea front line, there is an impetus for Southeast Asian countries to spruce up their civilian maritime law enforcement agencies instead of devoting attention to their navies. This assumes Beijing will commit only the CCG and PAFMM to South China Sea operations. Within the CCG, however, there appears to be growing concern about the efficacy of this approach to maritime sovereignty and rights protection. The first issue pertains to the lack of a comprehensive, unified maritime legislation that would pull together the disparate laws for specific maritime functions (e.g., marine environmental protection and fisheries management), with the other being the use of naval forces by Southeast Asian rivals.11
Hence, one approach undertaken by China in recent times is a more robust PLAN posture in the South China Sea. Notably, in May 2018, the PLAN, CCG, and local maritime law enforcement authorities constituted a joint flotilla to conduct patrols in the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands for the first time.12 This new arrangement is no longer confined to the Paracel Islands; it may already have been extended to the Spratly Islands group and nearby contested features. Indeed, during the maritime standoff with the Philippines at Whitsun Reef in March 2021, Philippine maritime patrols monitoring the swarm of Chinese vessels in the Philippine EEZ caught sight of PLAN vessels around various features that are part of the disputed Spratly Islands group.13 Throughout 2020 and 2021, PLAN vessels were reported to have harassed Philippine government and civilian vessels.14
Capacity building among Southeast Asian maritime forces should encompass not just MDA, but also physical assets (namely, ships) that can assert sovereignty in the South China Sea. The combined quantitative might of the PLAN and CCG puts China’s Southeast Asian rivals at a disadvantage that cannot be balanced by MDA alone. Southeast Asian military authorities have noted that their fleets lack capacity, and what ships and aircraft they have in service are old.15
In terms of physical assets, offshore-capable vessels hold the key to persistent presence in open EEZ waters. But offshore-capable ships that serve Southeast Asian navies and coast guards have largely hovered below 30 percent of force totals. This figure does not indicate the readiness levels of these ships or their geographical distribution. Given the long coastlines and vast maritime zones of Southeast Asian countries (excluding Brunei), some available assets will have to be deployed to other areas of concern besides the South China Sea.
Attempts to address capacity shortfalls in offshore-capable assets have been checkered and uneven in Southeast Asia, often determined by funding availability and the tussle between navies and coast guards for finite resources. Vietnam has been particularly successful in building its maritime forces, having distributed its limited funds to modernize both its navy and maritime law enforcement agencies—the coast guard and the Fisheries Resources Surveillance Force. By contrast, the Indonesian Navy remains the dominant player in that country’s maritime security architecture and hence continues to draw the lion’s share of funding at the expense of its coast guard counterpart. Malaysia’s maritime force development has been hamstrung across the board by economic difficulties dating from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad embezzlement scandal and the COVID-19 impact, as well as procurement woes, which placed several key programs on the back burner—including the littoral combat ship program, which has overrun its schedule. The first of three Tun Fatimah–class offshore patrol vessels was supposed to have been delivered to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency in 2019 but was delayed into 2023.16 The Philippine Navy and Coast Guard have inducted more offshore-capable assets in the form of new frigates and offshore patrol vessels acquired from France, Japan, and South Korea, but funding constraints mean the process will take longer than desired.
A Concerted Team Effort
Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea confront a stark reality. They must contend with the ever-present economic imperative of not “rocking the boat” in diplomatic and trade relations with China. For some of these countries, the South China Sea issue does not hold the same weight as maintaining a buoyant, economically beneficial relationship with Beijing. Yet, while some Southeast Asian capitals may avoid openly calling out China’s aggression, they continue to push back against Beijing’s maritime coercion via other, less visible, actions, including fielding a counterpresence using limited maritime capacities and engaging extraregional parties as a counterweight. While these actions may not have rolled back Beijing’s gray zone activities, they constrain China’s freedom of action.
Going forward, Southeast Asian nations with South China Sea claims are likely to continue their two-tracked approach to countering Beijing’s maritime coercion: beefing up their maritime forces as funding allows and engaging friendly extraregional presence. The present postpandemic recovery notwithstanding, uncertainties about emerging viral subvariants and current global inflationary pressures may limit sustained long-term spending on maritime forces. This means concerned countries are likely to put greater emphasis on gaining outside support. In this regard, extraregional assistance in maritime capacity building will be crucial. However, this assistance must go beyond improving maritime domain awareness. While MDA capabilities are undeniably helpful in plugging detection and surveillance gaps, regional South China Sea parties require more physical assets that can put up a viable counterpresence against China’s forces in disputed waters and act against transgressors at sea.
Extraregional powers have gradually scaled up assistance to regional navies and coast guards. Examples include the transfers of former U.S. Coast Guard cutters to Vietnam and the Philippines and Japan’s provision of used and new offshore patrol vessels to Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Yet these efforts are insufficient to help Southeast Asian nations fill their capacity gaps. Absent a more significant U.S. and allied intervention, the asymmetry in maritime force levels between Southeast Asian countries and China will persist. Measures to help these countries increase their indigenous shipbuilding capacities will help them build their own offshore patrol vessels. Economies of scale could be achieved if regional navies and coast guards adopted common platforms that could be built in quantity. For example, an offshore patrol vessel might be built in a Malaysian shipyard for multiple regional navies, while a smaller coastal patrol vessel design might be built in the Philippines. Such common designs would lead to lower per-unit procurement and maintenance costs and greater interoperability.
Providing physical capabilities to push back against China’s maritime coercion is necessary. But simply gifting equipment to partners will be insufficient if not accompanied by efforts to bolster key intangible factors such as national political will and interagency cooperation. Given the blurring nexus between the PLAN, CCG, and PAFMM in the South China Sea, it will be imperative for Southeast Asian countries to reexamine and enhance their interagency maritime efforts. It is also crucial not to lose sight of the overarching need to ensure a coherent and consistent whole-of-government, whole-of-nation, multinational approach to China’s gray zone aggression that goes beyond maritime forces to include measures such as economic diversification.
1. Lyle J. Morris, Michael J. Mazarr, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Stephanie Pezard, Anika Binnendijk, and Marta Keep, Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019), 8.
2. James J. Wirtz, “Life in the ‘Gray Zone’: Observations for Contemporary Strategists,” Defense & Security Analysis 33, no. 2 (2017): 106–14.
3. Wataru Okada, “China’s Coast Guard Law Challenges Rule-Based Order,” The Diplomat, 28 April 2021.
4. Nick Danby, “China’s False Promise: Gunboat Diplomacy, Not Win-Win Outcomes, Will Shape the South China Sea,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 28 September 2022).
5. Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zack Cooper, John Schaus, and Jake Douglas, “Counter-Coercion Series: China-Vietnam Oil Rig Stand-Off,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, CSIS, 12 June 2017.
6. “Malaysia Picks a Three-Way Fight in the South China Sea,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 21 February 2020.
7. “Nervous Energy: China Targets New Indonesian, Malaysian Drilling,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 12 November 2021.
8. Jairo Bolledo, “More Ships Sent to West PH Sea Amid Continuous Chinese Incursion,” Rappler, 13 April 2021.
9. Glee Jalea, “How the Philippine Coast Guard Challenged Chinese Vessels in Sabina Shoal,” CNN Philippines, 6 May 2021.
10. Raymond Carl Dela Cruz, “PCG Drives Away Chinese Navy Ship from Marie Louise Bank in WPS,” Philippine News Agency, 19 July 2021; and Frances Mangosing, “PH Coast Guard Stops China Navy Incursion Near Palawan Resort Town,” Inquirer.net, 19 July 2021. Pictures of the close encounter at Marie Louise Bank can be found in this Manila Bulletin report: Richa Noriega, “PH Coast Guard’s Radio Challenge Drives Away Chinese Navy Warship in WPS,” Manila Bulletin, 19 July 2021.
11. For example, see 宋志伟 [Song Zhiwei], “中国海警在南海有争议海区执 法的几点思考” [Some Points for Consideration Regarding China Coast Guard’s Law Enforcement in the South China Sea Disputed Areas], 公安海警学院学报 [Journal of the Chinese Maritime Police Academy] 12, no. 4 (May 2013): 48–50; and 潘志煊 [Pan Zhixuan], 何忠龙 [He Zhonglong], and 王河 [Wang He], “论 南海局势下中国海警的机遇与挑战” [A Discussion on the Opportunities and Challenges Facing China Coast Guard under the Current South China Sea Situation], 公安海警学院学报 [Journal of the Chinese Maritime Police Academy] 10, no. 4 (October 2013): 48–51.
12. This arrangement provided for a graduated response at sea: If the flotilla were to encounter a foreign naval vessel, the PLAN ship would respond; the CCG ship would deal with foreign fishing vessels, while the local authorities focus on Chinese nationals (such as fishermen and smugglers) who violate domestic maritime laws. “军警民联合编队首次巡逻西沙岛礁，历时5天4夜” [Military-Coast Guard-Civilian Joint Flotilla Conducts Maiden Paracel Islands Patrol, Lasting Five Days and Four Nights], 中国军网 [81.cn], 20 May 2018.
13. The National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) spotted a pair of Type-022 Houbei-class missile fast-attack craft and a “corvette-class warship”— most likely the Type-056. “Four Chinese Navy Ships, 254 Maritime Militia Vessels ‘Swarm’ Spratlys, West Philippine Sea–NTF-WPS,” Manila Standard, 31 March 2021; and “Patrols Reveal 6 China Navy Ships, 240 Militia in West Philippine Sea,” GMA News, 13 April 2021.
14. For instance, a PLAN ship exhibited “hostile intent” in February 2020 by pointing a “radar gun” at the Philippine Navy corvette Conrado Yap close to Commodore Reef. The Filipino warship did not have the electronic support measures to confirm electromagnetic emissions, but by “radar gun” it was actually referring to the PLAN ship’s fire control radar system for the main gun mounted on the forecastle, and the pointing was observed visually. In April 2021, a pair of PLAN Houbei-class missile fast-attack craft worked with a CCG patrol vessel to pursue a Filipino television crew conducting investigative journalism in the Philippine EEZ, close to the Second Thomas Shoal, where a Filipino military garrison is stationed. The Filipino vessel was chartered by the ABS-CBN News agency and was first chased by the CCG patrol vessel CCG-5101, which was then joined by the pair of PLAN Houbei craft. See Priam Nepomuceno, “Wescom Confirms Chinese Vessel’s Hostile Act vs. PH Navy Ship,” Philippine News Agency, 23 April 2020.
15. See Joviland Rita, “Philippine Naval Ships, Other Assets Deployed in West Philippine Sea Not Enough—Sobejana,” GMA News, 22 April 2021; and Farik Zolkepli, “Navy’s Transformation Plan Needs to Be Tweaked Due to Recent Events, says Navy Chief,” The Star (Malaysia), 27 April 2022.
16. Bernama, “MMEA Hoping to Receive OPV This Year,” Astro Awani, 6 June 2022.